Hopi Silversmithing: The development of Hopi Silverwork and the Hallmark Overlay Technique in Hopi Jewelry June 30 2017

Beginning in1930 there was an increased interest in Hopi crafts, especially Hopi silverwork, through the encouragement of members of the Flagstaff Art community, namely Dr. Harold S. Colton, Mary Russell Ferrell Colton (founders of the Museum of Northern Arizona), and Virgil Hubert (Assistant Art Curator at MNA). Helping to further the exposure of Hopi Crafts was the establishment of the Hopi Craftsman Exhibit presented by the Museum of Northern Arizona in 1939. The event gave Hopi tribal members a place to sell their wares and encouraged them to hone their skills. The Hopi silversmiths were encouraged to make jewelry that was uniquely Hopi, instead of making copies of Navajo or Zuni Designs. Mrs. Colton enlisted the help of Mr. Hubert to create designs for the jewelry pieces, derived from Hopi pottery, basketry, and textiles as a way to assist the silversmiths in the design process. However, due to the United States entering WWII in 1941 the making of crafts and more specifically silverwork stalled. There were shortages of raw materials, as well as the expectation that every able-bodied man would participate in the war effort, at home and abroad. 

The summer after the war ended in 1946 was a time of reinvigoration for the Hopi Art community. Fred Kabotie along with other Hopi Villagers were able to pull together enough crafts and silverwork to have a small exhibition at the Snake Dance held in Shungopavi. In attendance was Dr. Willard Beatty, a member of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and then Director of Education for the BIA. Shortly after the event, Dr. Beatty met with Fred Kabotie and Paul Saufkie to propose a GI training program that would provide courses in silversmithing to the returning Hopi Veterans, while also providing a source of income to them to help support their families.

In February of 1947, Fed Kabotie and Paul Saufkie began teaching classes with the mindset of of making a true statement with Hopi jewelry. Fred Kabotie, a well- known artist in his own right would teach design and Paul Saufkie, master silversmith, would teach silverworking techniques. The 18-month program was set to assist 15 Hopi veterans gain a new profession. They would use the designs originally created by Virgil Hulbert during the Hopi Silver Project and a book of Mimbres Pottery designs prepared by Fred Kabotie to inspire their own personal designs.

The classes were not easy. Each jewelry design had to be approved by Kabotie before the newly trained smith could begin working on it. It took time to find the right combination of designs that would speak of the Hopi culture. Once approved the men would hammer bars of silver into sheets and begin the process of creating their jewelry. Over the course of the program the Overlay technique was developed. It began with the concept of appliquéd silver that was used in Virgil Hubert’s designs. What was originally considered leftover scraps would become the foundation for the Overlay technique.

The Overlay technique is when two pieces of silver are soldered together after a design has been cut from the top layer, creating a negative design. Most silversmiths would create metal templates of their designs, which would allow them to trace a design onto the sheet of metal. The designs would then be cut out using a tiny saw blade. The templates could be used over and over and mixed together to create unique jewelry pieces. The artist would then add texture to the area of the bottom layer of silver that was visible. The final phase of construction, involved the visible areas of the bottom layer to be oxidized or blackened with a chemical agent, which allowed the top design to stand out.

This technique helped fuel the design process. By July 1949 there were enough pieces created that the silversmiths could participate in the Hopi Craftsman Exhibit.

After the first cycle of veterans graduated from the program, the Hopi Silvercraft Cooperative Guild was formed, which allowed the men who had entered the program to continue working after the program ended and they would no longer be receiving substance payments. The guild was able to obtain a loan for $5,000.00 to continue making jewelry. After the second class graduated the facility used for the classes was used full time by the guild.

In 1962, a large facility was constructed and to this day pieces are still sold there by local Hopi Silversmiths.

Featured Artist: Douglas Holmes, member of the Badger Clan. He was a member of the first class of Veterans to take part in Fred Kabotie and Paul Saufkie’s classes. He actively made jewelry from 1948 to 1961. His mark is that of a Butterfly with outstretched wings.

If you would like to learn more: Hopi Silver: The History and Hallmarks of Hopi Silversmithing by Margaret Nickelson Wright